State health officials are investigating if a variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is responsible for an extremely high percentage of positive cases at a Burnet nursing center.
Burnet County Local Health Authority Dr. Jules Madrigal confirmed that all of the Oaks Nursing Center’s residents and several staff members recently tested positive for COVID-19.
“The state has already been out there and inspected the center,” Madrigal said. “The thing is, they’ve been doing everything right. They’ve been following all the procedures and protocols. Based on everything they’ve been doing at Oaks, this shouldn’t have happened.”
On Jan. 15, Oaks Nursing Center posted on its website that 46 of its residents were positive for COVID-19, and seven of its staff members were “away from work due to (a) positive test or precautionary measures.”
Madrigal and Texas Department of State Health Services officials are concerned a new, more highly transmitted variant of the virus is behind the outbreak. On Jan. 7, DSHS officials confirmed the first known Texas case of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant in Harris County. This variant, which appears to spread more easily, was first identified in the United Kingdom last fall and has since been reported in the United States and other countries.
Madrigal said state health officials have taken blood samples from infected residents and staff at Oaks Nursing Center to conduct genetic testing of the virus to determine if it is the new variant. It will take a couple of weeks to conduct the testing and get the results back.
The new strain doesn’t appear to cause any more complications or lead to increased health risks compared to the original strain, and vaccines seem to be effective against it, Madrigal said. The higher contagion rate, however, is a big concern. Even if it doesn’t cause more serious illness, by infecting more people at a faster rate, it could lead to many more people contracting the virus, which could lead to more deaths.
In a statement regarding the Harris County case, DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said genetic variations are normal among viruses, and it should not be surprising how quickly it reached the United States, given the speed at which it spreads.
“This should make us all redouble our commitment to the infection prevention practices that we know work: masks any time you’re around people you don’t live with, social distancing, and personal and environmental hygiene,” he said.
Madrigal said based on the reports she’s received, Oaks Nursing Center should return to more normal conditions by early next week.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that there were 2 million deaths from COVID-19 in the United States as of Jan. 15. That number of deaths is actually worldwide. The United States is reporting 23.4 million total cases and 389,000 deaths due to COVID-19 as of Jan. 14.